Busted at the Safeway for phone phreaking

Last Updated on July 4, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Software developer, author, and blogger Jeff Atwood wrote his confessions of the 1980s this week. As a teenager and not-quite-adult, he was a phone phreaker.

More of this went on than anyone wants to admit. Rob O’Hara has podcasted about it.

His story dates to 1988. I owned a modem then (a 300-baud Commodore VICmodem, purchased from COMB Liquidators for $20), but didn’t know any BBS numbers to call.

It was the summer of 1989 that I stumbled across a BBS number in the phone book, of all places. A local computer store, Systems Plus on Watson Road in Shrewsbury, evidently ran a BBS. I called the store to verify. Yes, indeed, they ran a BBS, and anyone was welcome to call. So I connected the modem, called, and got an incredibly noisy (garbled) connection–you didn’t get any error correction for $20 back then–but I was online. They had a BBS list, and that led to other things.

Systems Plus’ BBS was as innocent as they come–just what you’d expect from something intended to promote a business–but some of the BBSs in their BBS list were less so. Some offered pirated software for download, much of it “imported” from other area codes. I’ve written about this before, but I’d say I knew of about four people who called St. Louis-area boards from out-of-state, and there were easily another 4-8 I suspected probably were out-of-staters. Some people were more discrete than others.

Of course they didn’t pay their long-distance bills. They were all kids like me. None of us had jobs, and most of us didn’t have any money.

I never tried it–I intended even then to go to college and graduate and become a professional something and I didn’t want a criminal record to get in the way–but I talked to people who did. And I would have heard stories anyway. Stories like the one Jeff Atwood related. Only they didn’t always get busted at work–sometimes they were at home when the Feds showed up. That actually seemed more common, in my day.

Eventually, investigators would catch up with these kids, and they’d disappear. Then eventually the story would come out, which always involved Feds knocking on a door, serving legal papers, sometimes seizing computer equipment, and in some cases, a stint in juvenile detention or Charter Behavioral Hospital.

And those who didn’t get caught usually outgrew it. One even gained quite a bit of prominence.

What I learned from these seedy characters turned out not to be useless. Nearly a quarter-century later, when studying to get my security certifications, I found a large section about phone phreaking. Most of what was in the book was a review for me. I don’t remember (and couldn’t say anyway) how many questions about phone phreaking were on my test, but however many there were and whatever they were, I’m confident I got them right.

There are books about it, but it’s all academic at this point anyway. Today, I can call anywhere in the United States for free. It’s a feature that costs $5 or $10 extra per month. Even by the early 1990s, there was a service available from one of the phone companies called PC Pursuit that let you call long distance, albeit with some restrictions, for $20 or $30 a month. That’s the nice thing about the United States–broken laws often indicate demand for something that doesn’t exist, and eventually it leads to commercial products.

So I doubt anyone steals long-distance phone service anymore. Kids these days are too busy stealing MP3s to care about something like that.

I guess what kids did in my generation must seem quaint.

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One thought on “Busted at the Safeway for phone phreaking

  • August 11, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Dr. Seuss

    One Box Two Box Red Box Blue Box, Capt. Crunch

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